This week, the Senate and House agriculture committees sent bills that would guide farming policy for the next five years to both legislative chambers for a vote. The vast majority of the legislation's outlined spending goes to a program that has proven a rich target for a Washington drunk on spending cuts—the food stamp program. The House bill would cut $20 billion over five years from the program’s $80 billion-a-year budget. The Senate's version would trim $4.4 billion from food stamps. The House bill gets most of its cuts by getting rid of program that allowed states to streamline the ways they provide assistance to the poor; the Senate bill would make changes to the program that would cut some people off food stamps.*
In true bureaucratic fashion, the program has an unwieldy name: “Categorical Eligibility.” Conservative lawmakers call it “automatic eligibility” to make it sound as though people who aren’t poor are finding food stamp cards in their mailboxes. In reality, the federal government is allowing states to be more generous than required, if they want to be. For most anti-poverty programs—like the one that used to be called welfare, subsidies for housing, childcare assistance, and heating assistance—states have a lot of leeway in deciding who qualifies. Eligibility is determined by how low a family’s income is and whether they have any assets, like a car worth more than $2,000. The food stamp guidelines were stricter but, in 1996, under the welfare reform law, states were allowed to give food assistance to people on certain other anti-poverty programs even when they had higher gross incomes and assets than would otherwise be allowed. There have also been incentives encouraging states to combine the application processes for a number of these programs, so that families don’t have to supply the same income information over and over again to the same county agency. It helped the state workers be more efficient and made it easier for families, but families still had to apply for food stamps to get them. Forty-three states participated. In no case did families have a gross income higher than 200 percent of the federal poverty line, and they still had to prove that their cost of living—after they paid for housing, childcare, and similar expenses—pushed them into poverty.
In discussing the cuts at the committee hearings, lawmakers proclaimed support for food stamps for “deserving” families who “needed” them, as if the changes would only cut off people who were somehow getting the benefits by mistake. “You don’t hear them saying let's go after the working poor,” says Jim Weill, president of FRAC, the Food Research and Action Center. But all the evidence shows that’s exactly what they’re doing.
The Center on Budget Policy and Priorities estimates that the cuts will knock 2 to 3 million people off food stamps. Since the start of the recession, around 47 million people have been enrolled in the food stamp program in any given month, or about 13 percent of the population, and even more cycle in and out of the program throughout the year. The number of people on food stamps is smaller than the 18 percent of families who, according to FRAC, reported that they struggled to afford food last year. For all the talk about fraud and waste in Washington, a better-documented problem is that fewer families are getting food stamps than could. Before the mortgage crisis, only about 54 percent of eligible households received them. During the recession, the participation rate rose to about 75 percent. That means a substantial number of people are living in poverty but forgoing help. (Families are more likely to participate when they have children.) People don’t get food stamps for many reasons, but while there are routine mechanisms states use to eliminate fraud, there aren’t as many publicity and awareness campaigns to pull in the underserved population.
All of this is happening at a time when advocates who work with the poor say people need more help, not less, despite the recession’s official end. A majority of the jobs created—58 percent—have been in the low-wage service sector. That means people are working at places like Wal-Mart or chain and fast-food restaurants, where their wages keep them below the poverty line. The reason states have been raising the income limits for programs like food stamps is that incomes—even those above the outdated federal poverty line—no longer cover basics like food, shelter, and care for children. More than half of the families with children who receive food stamps are working, and 90 percent had worked in the previous year.
Even those families that participate in the food stamp program are struggling to keep hunger at bay: The average monthly benefit for households is $273. (Benefits are calculated through a complex formula that takes family size and income into account). Dr. Mariana Chilton, from the Drexel School of Public Health, also works with the Center for Hunger-Free Communities and Children’s Health Watch. Those groups studied the real cost of a healthy diet in 2011 in Philadelphia, where they’re based, and found that it had far outpaced what the federal government estimated the costs to be. Right now, the maximum food stamp benefit for a family of four falls $100 short of covering what the government considers a healthy diet. That’s if the family can shop at a supermarket. When the small stores and bodegas poor families are more likely to have access to were taken into account there was a $200 gap. It will get even worse in November, when a temporary increase in the amount of benefits will expire, which the current farm bills do nothing to stop. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates families will, on average, lose about $20 to $25 a month—a family of four in Philadelphia receiving the maximum benefit would be nearly $300 in the hole if they tried to buy a healthy diet. If the House cuts pass, families’ benefits will fall even further.
To Chilton, there’s an additional problem: the food the government thinks is healthy is outdated. “They still have white bread on the menu,” she says. “We’ve figured out the cost of wheat bread, and healthier items, and that’s even worse.”
This is why families report they’re running out of food stamp benefits before the end of the month. For families who see their benefits go down before they make enough money at their jobs to cover the shortfall, or for families not on the program even though they qualify, the problems get even worse. Families adjust by eating less healthy food.
I spoke with Christie Irizarry, 22-year-old mother in Camden, New Jersey, who volunteers for Witnesses to Hunger, an advocacy organization affiliated with the Center for Hunger Free Communities. Christie works at Popeye’s Chicken part-time, and her manager won’t increase her hours. In fact, no one at the restaurant is getting the hours they want, but the manager keeps hiring part-time workers. Like most part-time workers, her hours are unpredictable, which makes childcare a challenge for her four-year old daughter. She’s trying to get a job at a factory, but what she’d really love to do is open a beauty parlor. She gets $355 a month in food stamps. The roughly $615 she has from work, plus about $15 in cash assistance is the only other income she gets every month; her rent alone is $650. She uses her food stamps to buy meat and rice first. When the food runs out, which it sometimes does at the middle of the month, she goes to a local church. “The only time I go to church is when I really need it,” she told me. “I don’t take advantage because there’s a lot of people out there suffering.” To make her food money last, she eats a lot of nonperishable foods like peanut butter and Ramen, noodles that cost less than a quarter per package.
That families are stretching their food budgets by eating less-healthy foods or skipping meals is a big problem for Chilton. “A young child, under the age of 3, the brain is growing so fast, it’s developing 700 neurons a second,” she says. “When that child doesn’t have enough food to feed the brain, all of the body's systems shut down.” Hungry kids are less likely to play and explore in all the ways that help them learn, and, if their parents are hungry, then mom and dad are not going to be interacting with their children in ways researchers know are important for child development. “Even if it’s just a week out of a month, even if it happens three times a year it has an impact. We know that through our research.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has already come out against the cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. In the Senate committee hearing, a number of Democrats—including Tom Harkin, of Iowa, Kirsten Gillibrand, of New York, and Mo Cowan, who temporarily replaced John Kerry in Massachusetts—criticized the nutrition cuts in the bill and defended the program the Senate wants to cut, which state administrators say makes getting people food stamps easier and more efficient. Gillibrand will introduce an amendment to restore the funding on the Senate floor, but it seems doomed in an environment where cutting spending is the norm. (The Senate passed a farm bill last year with about $4.5 billion in cuts to food stamps but the House never passed its own and the 2008 Farm Bill was extended to the end of this fiscal year. Gillibrand made the same objections last time.) The House’s cuts are $4 billion more than the agriculture committee cut food stamps last time. In a Pew poll, more than 70 percent of people support increasing or holding steady the amount of money the government spends on aid to the needy.
*This sentence originally mistated the extent to which the Senate bill cut the program.